"My hands are clean!" -- Rick
I could probably pick apart the frayed threads of the second-season finale of The Walking Dead -- it too-neatly echoes the Season 1 finale, with the burning barn replacing the exploding CDC and Rick's revelation of Jenner's secret, the characters are all suddenly expert shots with unlimited ammo, Jimmy and Patricia are proven the redshirts we always knew them to be -- but I just can't bring myself to do it. Maybe it's a case of lowered expectations, or maybe I was mesmerized by the 20-minute Battle for the Farm (hats off to director Ernest Dickerson). But whatever the case, Otis help me, I enjoyed "Beside the Dying Fire." A lot.
If "Better Angels" was, at least before last night, the best episode of the season, then "Beside the Dying Fire" is probably the strongest since the November 2010 series premiere, delivering the action, the zombies and the body count so many have been clamoring for while freeing the show from the momentum-killing morass of the farm, clearing out some of the deadwood -- you live to do nothing another day, T-Dog! -- introducing a fan-favorite character from the comic series, the sword-wielding Michonne, and offering a glimpse of The Prison. That's a staggering achievement for a show that spent much of the previous 12 episodes marching in place, waiting first for the arrival of the midseason finale and then the home stretch.
Of course, it took an enormous herd of walkers that had been slowwwwwly moving and growing since the fall of Atlanta to do what neither Shane nor Hershel could accomplish throughout the season: get Rick & Co. back on the road. I'm still unclear how Shane and Rick sidestepped the groaning mass of undead in the woods, but we'll just chalk that up to one of the mysteries of life ... or, y'know, one of the many plot holes of The Walking Dead. However, its emergence from the shadowy treeline and into the open fields of the Greene farm is chilling, cutting short Rick's fumbling attempt to explain to Carl how Shane became a walker, and saving the audience from what likely would've been an exhausting 20-minute confession/debate once they returned to the group.
While the two make a run for the barn, the alarm goes up at the farmhouse, where Hershel and the others hatch a laughable plan to kill as many walkers as they can and then use the vehicles to lead whatever remains away from the farm. Shane's firearm classes apparently were more extensive than you might have imagined, as the survivors are transformed into world-class snipers, able to make repeated unerring head shots from the windows of moving cars. Lori being Lori, she discovers at the most inopportune moment that Carl is once again missing, triggering a frantic search of the house (seriously, either keep a better eye on that kid or hang a bell around his neck).
But Carl, fresh from shooting zombie-Shane, has his own problems, as his father makes him key to his own plan to fight the walkers -- one that involves setting fire to the barn with the zombies, and the Grimes boys, inside. It's only slightly more effective than Hershel's idea, and leads to Jimmy's death when he drives the RV into the horde to rescue Rick and Carl from the hayloft. On the plus side -- that is, if you don't consider the death of Jimmy as a positive -- their scheme does provide the big scene with a beautiful, flaming centerpiece. Farewell, Jimmy. We'll memorialize you with a roundup of your best lines: . Amen.
Determined to save his farm or die trying, Hershel makes a valiant stand, killing walker after walker as they inch closer to the house. Everyone else, though, realizes the battle is lost, and so a disorganized retreat begins, with Patricia brought down even as Lori and Beth make their way to T-Dog's truck. Carol, seemingly destined to play either damsel in distress or affronted party, is rescued first by Andrea and then by her knight on shining Triumph Bonneville, Daryl. As thanks for her effort, Andrea is separated from the group and left behind (curiously, T-Dog later says he saw her fall, but we know that's not the case).
Dragging Hershel out of danger, Rick takes him and Carl to the spot on the highway where they left supplies for Sophia, the group's apparent rallying point. In a perplexing turn, even for The Walking Dead, Hershel quickly and easily convinces Rick that he should take Carl and go, that his son is all that matters now. After waiting only minutes, Rick begins to explain to Carl why they have to leave but is interrupted by Daryl leading in the ragtag parade of survivors: Glenn, Maggie, Carol, T-Dog, Beth and Lori.
Following a little perfunctory hand-wringing about Andrea's fate -- unbeknown to the others, she's rescued in the woods by the well-time appearance of a sword-swinging hooded woman trailing two shackled armless, and jawless, zombies behind her -- they set off in hopes of putting some distance between themselves and the herd. Rick attempts to buoy their spirits by pledging that there's a place out there where they cannot only hunker down but make a life for themselves. Unfortunately, though, he undermines his own words of inspiration by revealing what Jenner whispered to him, that "We're all infected," and "Whatever it is, we all carry it," before confessing first to Lori and later the group that he killed Shane. Although he initially suggests to an angry Lori, who only days before plotted Shane's death, that his motives were personal -- "I just wanted it over, I wanted him dead" -- he later erupts on Carol and the other doubters, insisting he only had the welfare of the group in mind: "I killed my best friend for you people, for Christ's sake!"
Clearly transformed, and possibly unhinged, by the death of Shane, Rick responds to the doubts of the fragile and jumpy group -- Glenn's dismay that he kept Jenner's secret all this time and Carol's fears that he can't keep them safe -- with an invitation for to leave. However, "If you're staying, this isn't a democracy anymore." As Rick lays down the law to the shell-shocked survivors huddling together in the darkness, we're given our first glimpse of what will next test their resolve: The Prison.